Tuesday, March 3, 2020
March 3, 2020: Boston Sites: The Black Heritage Trail
[On March 5th, 1770, the events of the Boston Massacre unfolded on King’s Street. On March 5th, 2020, the Northeast MLA convention will begin in Boston. So for both the Massacre’s 250th anniversary and that ongoing convention, this week I’ll highlight some historic sites and collective memories in Boston!]
On three of the many reasons to walk the wonderful Black Heritage Trail.
1) The Museum of African American History (MAAH): The heart of the Trail is a wonderful museum that is likewise (as I argued about the Black Heritage Trail in yesterday’s post) frustratingly overlooked when it comes to Boston area sites, the MAAH (or rather its Boston Campus—I just learned that there’s also a Nantucket Campus, which might finally get me to visit that island!). A glimpse at some of the museum’s past exhibits makes clear that this is a historic site that does justice to far more than the histories and stories of this Boston neighborhood (vital and too-often forgotten as those are); indeed, prior to the opening of the Smithsonian’s new museum, the Boston MAAH was one of the preeminent African American history museums in the country. It may not have to do quite as much of that heavy lifting any more, but the MAAH remains a wonderful space, one deeply embedded in Boston histories but opening up to key conversations and ideas in American history and identity as well.
2) David Walker: 81 Joy Street, a private residence along the trail, features a plaque commemorating the African American writer, abolitionist, and activist David Walker, who lived there for some years in the early 19th century (as, interestingly enough during the same time period, did another iconic writer, orator, and abolitionist, Maria Stewart). As this ongoing project argues, a more full memorial to Walker in the city is very much in order, and hopefully can be funded and constructed at some point in the near future. But the plaque is not nothing, and indeed, much like the Trial overall, if encountered and remembered by more visitors and Bostonians would help us engage with the unique yet amazingly representative life, voice, and work of this Early Republic titan.
3) Reframing the Shaw Memorial: As I argued in yesterday’s post, it’s not enough just to better remember the Black Heritage Trail itself—we also have to work to connect it to the Freedom Trail, and through such links make clearer the relationships between these Boston and American sites, histories, and communities. Fortunately, there’s an overt and excellent pivot point between the two Trails at which to start that process: the Shaw Memorial. Despite the Memorial’s name, I would argue (as I did in the above hyperlinked post) that it stands out more for sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ ground-breaking depictions of the African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts than for anything about Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (inspiring as he was in life and in death). But of course it’s not either-or—these two elements of the Memorial, like the soldiers and Shaw, and like the Black Heritage Trail and the Freedom Trail, were and are entirely interconnected, indeed cannot be remembered or understood without each other. A lesson that requires us to walk the Boston Black Heritage Trail!
Next site tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sites and collective memories (in Boston or anywhere else) you’d highlight?